After clearing customs and immigrations at Narita International Airport, we stopped to get some Yen from an ATM. Finding ATMs that accept international credit/debit cards in Tokyo are difficult to find. Also most stores do not accept credit/debit cards for payment, so it’s best to stock up on the yen think you’ll need for the trip before leaving the airport.

Subway

Waiting for a train in the subway.

Narita is not actually located in Tokyo, but is about 40 miles (65km) from Tokyo. Options to get from the airport to the city include bus, taxi and several rail lines. The two rail options are JR’s Narita Express (NEX) that covers the distance in 53 to 70 minutes, depending on the final destination and time of day. It’s also the most expensive rail option. JR also has a slower Kaisoku Airport Narita line that takes about 90 minutes. Keisei has regular trains that are the cheapest and slowest option. Keisei also has a Skyliner that covers the distance in 51 minutes. We opted for the regular Keisei line that took around 90 minutes.

As the countryside grew into a vibrant cityscape, I watched the sun set on the land of the rising sun- nearly 21 hours after I saw it rise in Orlando. That was the moment I realized that I really had travelled halfway across the world. It still felt so unreal to me.

After the train arrived in Tokyo, we needed to transfer to the subway to get to the hotel. One of my friends had been to Tokyo before and knew how the system worked. Most of the signage is in Japanese, but the ticket machines have an English option. Figuring out the fare is a matter of knowing where you’re starting from and where you’re going to. If we did have the wrong fare, refare machines are at all the exits.

One interesting feature on some trains and subways are the women-only cars. Mostly used during rush hour, they are designed to protect against chikan– groping- usually by men against women. As a female, I didn’t experience any problems while I was there.

Shoe locker

A shoe locker with a pair of slippers inside.

We soon got to the hotel and the gentleman at the desk didn’t speak much English. But it was enough to convey that we had a reservation there. He pointed over at the vending machine in the lobby. I knew Japan was famous for its vending machines, but I never thought I’d be paying for my hotel room that way. After getting the ticket from the machine, the gentleman at the desk gave me a room key.

The lobby had another interesting feature- the shoe lockers. It’s a tradition in most Asian countries to remove your shoes before stepping into a home. All the shoe lockers held a pair of slippers in them. So guests could remove their shoes, wear the slippers and store their shoes until they were ready to leave the hotel.

The hotel room itself had more Japanese features in it. A teapot and hot water heater took the place of a coffeemaker so guest can make ocha– green tea. The pillow was filled with hard rice husks, which sounds uncomfortable, but I slept fine on it.

After dropping off our bags, the three of us hit the streets of Tokyo. My first impression of the city is that I felt like I was back in New York City, except I couldn’t read any of the signs. Tokyo has all the glitz, glitter and people that the Big Apple has.

A tea set in the hotel room

A tea set in the hotel room.

We had worked up quite an appetite after going halfway around the world, so we needed to find a spot where we could grab some dinner. Fortunately we had a lot of places to chose from. Many restaurants in Japan like to set up displays outside with plastic models of the food they serve. Considering that my entire Japanese vocabulary consists of about 4 words, the displays made it much easier to figure out what places were offering.

After looking around a bit, we picked a sushi bar. This bar had a cool feature- a conveyor belt ran around the bar with plates of sushi on it. Guests just reach over and pick up whatever they like off the belt. The food is priced according to what color plate it is on. And if there’s something specific a diner wants, they can ask one of the sushi chefs behind the counter for it. The bar had menus printed on the tea cups that identified the food in both Japanese and English. The bar had some other interesting features, including hot towels (although these are offered in most restaurants in Japan) and hot water taps that are used to make ocha- green tea.

The sushi itself was tasty and quite fresh. It was fun trying different types of fish and squid.

After dinner, we went on the hunt for a karaoke place. We found one just a few blocks away from the sushi bar. My friends and I enjoy doing karaoke in the US, but it’s set up differently in Japan and other Asian countries. Instead of a singer getting up in front of a crowd to sing, groups of people will rent out a private room and sing among themselves. So we walked in and after a bit of gesturing and sign language, we rented a room for an hour or so.

The song list was quite large and was the size of a phone book. Several thousand songs in over half a dozen languages, including Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and English, were available. It was a fun way to do karoke, especially when one mischievous friend started cuing up Japanese songs to sing. One advantage of this karoke setup is that there’s no long wait for your chance to sing. Another interesting feature is that food can be delivered to the rooms. As we were heading out, I saw one group get a pizza delivery.

Walking through Asakusa.

Walking through Asakusa.

After karaoke, we wandered around a bit just to see what all was in the area. This was about the point where I simply could not believe that I was on the other side of the world. I felt like I had been picked up and dropped off into some weird version of New York City. We stopped into an arcade and played one of the great Japanese exports- Dance Dance Revolution.

After all the walking, singing and DDRing, we stopped into a noodle shop for yakisoba and wonton soup before heading back to the hotel for the night.

One thing I noticed on that first night was not what I saw but what I didn’t see- homeless people or beggars. In every large city that I’ve been in so far, I’ve come across beggars within a few hours. It’s possible we didn’t go into the poorer parts of town. But what I suspect is that Japanese culture doesn’t approve of homelessness and has either managed to keep them out of sight or come up with some solid support systems for them (after doing some research, it looks like the latter is true). It’s one of the many elements that sets Japan apart from US and Western culture.

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